Every spring during medieval times rush floor coverings were replaced with fresh and the old symbolically burned. We no longer use rushes, but the tradition has continued, hopefully without the need to set fire to our carpets, cleaning our homes from top to bottom and is now known as spring cleaning. No matter how large or small the house might be, it always benefits from a thorough going over. Brian Spencer visited Chatsworth House to see spring cleaning on a massive scale.
At the top of the stairs from Chatsworth’s Painted Hall, an open door showed a pile of rolled carpets and stacked lampshades, an ideal subject for someone researching the annual spring clean. I was about to go into action with my notebook and camera at the ready when I was quickly dragged back – this was the Duke’s private apartments! Yes it was, like the rest of the house, being cleaned from top to bottom, but it was off limits as far as I was concerned; after all Chatsworth is first and foremost a family home.
In any case there was plenty to see elsewhere around the house. Janet Bitton, Chatsworth’s Deputy Head House Keeper had kindly offered to show me round and explain how the colossal job is carried out. Prior to the house being opened in the run up to Christmas spring cleaning was a more leisurely affair that ran from October to March. Nowadays the job can only start in early January and the house must be ready for opening around Easter.
The thousands of visitors wandering through Chatsworth’s rooms and corridors bring with them not only grime from outside, but as is the nature of we humans millions of dead skin cells. No matter how well people wipe their shoes, dirt inevitably spreads itself along the carpets covering the floors and dead skin cells, being light, settle as dust on ceiling ledges and plaster mouldings. All this has to be cleaned along with inevitable restoration work as well as re-arranging rooms in order to bring otherwise unseen priceless objects out of storage. In order to keep the rooms looking as their designers intended, rather than cover the carpets with protective runners when the house is open to the public, every carpet is trodden by hundreds of thousands of feet each year; the result of this is that every yard of carpet must be washed and dried.
Low level objects are cleaned either by gentle vacuuming, traditional feather dusters, or damp cloths; anything above head height – and there is an awful lot of it – has to be reached by a system of movable scaffolding. Remembering the disastrous Del Boy episode, chandeliers must be a nightmare to clean as every drop or pendant has to be washed by hand in the mildest of soap suds; only old fashioned soap will do as detergents could spoil the refractive properties of the glass. In time gone by chandeliers were very much a status symbol, so much so that the 1st Duke’s moved around with him as he progressed around his properties; there is even a special carrying case for one of them lying somewhere in Chatsworth.
Moving up a floor away from the private section, Janet took me into the State Rooms which were looking rather neglected as all of the tapestries were away for restoration and in many cases the walls were down to their bare boards. There was still a Mortlake tapestry dating from 1635 in the State Drawing Room waiting to go to the restorers and what caught my eye was its colour, or lack of it. Looking quite monochrome, hopefully it will one day be back to its original colourful glory. According to Janet, originally access to the State Rooms was governed by a sort of pecking order, with only the most senior courtiers actually reaching the King’s Bedroom. Here if they were especially privileged, the interview continued in the comfort of the State Dressing Room or Closet, the small room at the end in a corner of the north and west walls. Plates and rare tulip vases from the days when those bulbs changed hands for a fortune have to be cleaned either by damp or even dry dusters. There must be hundreds of plates and each must be handled with the utmost care before they can be re-hung. There is a painting at Chatsworth of girls from Penrhos School in North Wales using the State Drawing Room as a dormitory.
Apparently they were forcibly evacuated to Chatsworth during the war in order to make room for Ministry of Food civil servants who were moved to Wales for safety. The girls seem to have enjoyed their stay in ducal surroundings even though the house was attacked by a marauding German bomber and as there was no heating, glasses of water left out overnight in winter usually managed to freeze. They did however, have the advantage of skating on the canal pond when the ice was thick enough and as a change for 2014, the State Drawing Room will be set out like the dormitory shown in the painting. The only other work that was going on during my short visit was downstairs on the ground floor in the area of the ante-library, the dining room and the shop. The library must have thousands of books, most of them leather-backed including many rare first or special editions.
Each book had to be carefully taken down off its shelf, dusted with a fine soft brush and put back exactly in the order from which it came; it was amazing how much dust had accumulated since the last cleaning session. We moved on into the dining room which was used by Queen Victoria when she visited Chatsworth, both as a princess and after her coronation. Not for us the glittering splendour of when she dined at Chatsworth, the room looked bare with the table covered by sheeting and every drinking glass and piece of cutlery removed for cleaning. The 200 piece chandelier is taken down piece by piece, then washed before being returned to its original splendour.
One of my favourite statues in the gallery is of a priestess offering a sacrifice to the gods. The sculptor has managed to show her as though her head is shrouded in fine gauze: she was there right enough, but had to compete with the other figures mundanely covered in clear plastic; during the time of spring cleaning the effect is almost the same. Another and more modern competitor temporarily housed in the statue gallery was the life sized figure of a fully-maned lion. He was a left over from the pre-Christmas 2013 decorations based on the theme of children’s stories; Aslan from ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.
As it is unlikely that the children’s book theme will ever be used again, what will happen to the magnificent beast is anyone’s guess. Before we reached the shop, the last working site on our itinerary, we passed the Pietro Annigoni painting of Deborah, the now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. It seems a pity that such a beautiful painting should be almost hidden away in a corner, but that’s the way of things. During the time when the house is open to the public, the shop is a tempting array of things to buy, but during the spring clean every last item was consigned to the cellar while the walls were dusted down and the shelving repainted.
To complete my ‘Spring Cleaning at Chatsworth’ tour, I took a look outside to see the result of the cleaning that has been underway for the last few years; the stone has now been returned to the warm, dull yellow shade it was before the ravages of pollution took their toll and the gilded window frames shone brightly in the wintry sun. Somehow the gilding, though done a few years ago, looks fresher now than it did at first, maybe something to do with the stone which came from a quarry above Beeley. It had to be specially opened to repair damaged sections of Chatsworth’s outer walls. Repairs and restoration work to the Sea Horse Fountain beyond the West Front were taking place and the energetic bronze greyhounds that used to stand closer to the house now continue their antics as a feature enlivening the enclosed central courtyard.